TOGETHER APART, SUMMER CIRQUE at Markham Fairgrounds Complex (10801 McCowan, Markham). $65 and up. To August 1. togetherapartcirque.com
The coronavirus pandemic finally seems to be easing in and around Toronto, but if the first major live show in the region is an indication, audiences are not yet ready to do heavy mental lifting during an evening out.
Ontario entered step 2 of the reopening plan on June 30 and outdoor live events that don’t involve remaining seated inside a vehicle at a drive-in are now allowed to happen. (Although there are many other rules.)
A 40-minute drive up the Don Valley Parkway and the 404 from downtown takes you to the latest frontier in post-lockdown entertainment: the outdoor “summer cirque” Together Apart, which is viewable from custom-built private platforms at the 104-acre Markham Fairgrounds Complex.
While many people are blowing off post-lockdown steam with beach raves, patio dining and firework fights, Together Apart is a chill experience ideally suited to the still-anxious theatre goer who has at least $65 to spend and a ride to Markham.
After parking in a field, you pass through a security check where guards ensure you are wearing a mask and not sneaking in any contraband snacks. Perhaps you stop and pose for an Instagram-able moment between artificial hedge bunnies and then you choose an available pod that matches the colour of your wristband. Masks can come off once you’re seated.
The viewing pods seat up to six people – the same as the step 2 capacity for outdoor dining tables. Snacks and drinks are order-able via a QR code and brought to your table by masked wait staff drifting between the platforms.
The stage is in-the-round-style with a long runway and two screens flanking either side. The scaffolding is adorned with flowers and twisty hedge sculptures that have a vague Alice In Wonderland vibe. I caught the late show on a cloudy and cool Sunday night. The vast open sky above the fairground was refreshing to drink in after nine months of being locked down downtown, but the candy-coloured sunset was largely obscured by a smattering of deep grey clouds that dramatically framed the stage, halo-like.
The family-friendly, hour-long show is produced by the Concierge Club, an event marketing agency that put on the Polar Drive-Through holiday lights display last year. It stars The 7 Fingers, a Montreal circus arts collective that won a Tony Award eight years ago for a Broadway revival of the 1972 Bob Fosse classic Pippin.
The group is known for stripped-back circus performances, which suits the distanced open-air experience. There isn’t a lot of nuance or plot to follow – Together Apart is a back-to-basics acrobatic show that encompasses trapeze, Chinese pole routines, colourful smoke grenades, an aerial silk performance and a juggling musical chairs routine.
The story sees a troupe of performers arriving at a ball, searching for the things they’ve lost and happy to be together again. The choreography is full of broad, grand gestures and screwball energy and the music ranges from chunky dubstep (a hoop tumbling routine) to the delicate Antony and the Johnsons ballad Salt Silver Oxygen (a tightrope walk).
During the pandemic, uplifting and nostalgic entertainment like magic shows seem to be everywhere. The high-tech IRL show Jamie Allan’s Illusionarium is set to open in Toronto when the province begins step 3 and both local promoters and streaming platforms have recently broadcast magic shows.
But this desire for the simple pleasures of uplifting analog trickery pre-date the rise of physical distancing and Zoom hangouts, perhaps a reflection of more continuous anxieties: the Art Gallery of Ontario had scheduled a Houdini-inspired exhibition in early 2020 and the Luminato festival brought a mirror maze to town in summer 2019.
With a greater number of performers than solo magic routines, circus shows like Together Apart are ideal for scratching whatever anxious itch you’re feeling in step 2 before we expand our social bubbles and get closer to each other in step 3.
It’s an easy entertainment experience, full of simply composed aesthetic pleasures, physical feats – that veer more toward straight-up athleticism than Cirque du Soleil freakish – and child-like wonderment.
Even though live entertainment is conducive to audience participation – even distanced – Together Apart sticks to the latter half of its title, inducing a clap-along moment with a syncopated beat and encouraging the audience to dance in their pods.
If you’re the kind of person who cringes at the thought of audience participation during a night out at the theatre, you can probably handle what step 2 has to offer.